How to set the right white balance

This is something i have been planning to learn more about for quite some time but it didn’t feel very urgent – or very fun – so i was putting it off. It’s about white balance. I have done some research that i have written down here for my own future use and for anyone else who wants to know. I will not go into post-processing white balance corrections in this post.

Actually, i thought i knew what i needed to know about white balance, but i mostly shoot raw images and i fix it in post processing. I was at a handball game and decided to shoot jpeg instead. It was indoor and without the ability to fix the white balance afterwards, i wanted to get it right. I set the camera up with custom white balance and at first it looked fine, but i noticed after a while that the shots were not right. I had to switch to one of the white balance presets. Since i had no clue what kind of flourescent light were used in the sports hall, i didn’t know which one to use. Not good.

Handball image different white balance

Light has different temperatures

Let’s begin at the beginning. Light has different color depending on factors such as the light source, the time of day, presence of clouds, mist etc. Color temperatures are measured on the Kelvin (K) scale. When we talk about photography, we start at around 1500K, which is candle light. If you’ve ever taken a picture in candle light, you’ll know it came out very orange. This end of the scale is called a warm colors. At the other end of the scale, we have pictures taken outdoors in the shade or on a day with a hazy sky. These are cool color temperatures that are more towards blue. They are at around 7000-8000K.

In the middle, we have white color temperature, which is 5000K. Anything above 5000 is considered cool and anything below is considered warm. Daylight color temperature is around 5200K.

Most cameras have an auto white balance. It’s actually pretty good. I assume most photographers use it always. The auto white balance works well within the 3000K-7000K range.

Eggs ion a plate wi9th three different color temperatures

Camera presets for white balance

To make it easy for us photographers, the camera manufacturers have come up with presets for color temperatures ranges. On Nikon cameras, they are:

  • Incandescent (3000K)
  • Florescent (2700-7200K – see chart below)
  • Direct sunlight (5200K)
  • Flash (5400K)
  • Cloudy (6000K)
  • Shade (8000K)

This is fairly easy to understand except for flourescent, where you basically need to know what the lamps in the room are made of. The camera manual talks about sodium vapor lamps, cold white flourescent, daylight flourescent, warm white flourescent and high-temperature mercury vapor lamps. This may make sense to the technician at Nikon who wrote my manual, but not to me.

Nikon white balance presets chart8

Also, i’m a bit confused about the difference between cloudy and shade. It turns out that even though the Kelvin numbers are far apart, the difference between these two is not so large and it’s very difficult to recommend a set of rules for when to use which one. Check your images on the back of your camera. If the feel too cool, choose cloudy. If they feel too warm, switch to shade.

As you probably know, sunrise and sunset light is nowhere near the sunlight we get mid-day. However, if you’re shooting sunrises or sunsets, you most likely want to capture that warm golden light that you get when the sun is close to the horizon. Set your white balance to Direct sunlight or even Cloudy and you’ll capture the nice warm light. The light temperature at sunrise or sunset is between 1000K and 2000K.

Creating custom presets – it’s a lot easier than you think

If your camera has an option to set a custom white balance, don’t be afraid to use it. It’s actually pretty easy. Get to know it and practice it a few times and you’ll be fine. All you need is a white card or a gray card. Many lens cloths have a neutral gray color that makes them perfect for white balance calibration.

Setting a custom white balance on the Nikon D7100

I’ll show you how to do his on my current camera, the D7100. The procedure is very similar to that of my other camera – the D90.

There are actually three ways to set a custom white balance: using the viewfinder, using Live View spot metering or using an existing photograph. The first two will require a white or gray card.

Setting a custom white balance using the viewfinder

Place a white or gray card (or your gray lens cloth) in the same light as your subject.

On the back of the camera, press the info button. Then press the WB button, second from the top to the left of the screen. While holding the WB button, rotate the main (back) command dial until the display says “PRE” in the lower part of the screen. Now rotate your secondary (front) command dial to select which preset number you want to store your setting on. The preset slots are numbered d-1 through d-6. Now you’re all set to measure the color temperature.

Now release the WB button and then press and hold it. In the viewfinder and on the top screen, you will see the blinking text “PRE”. You now have six seconds to measure. Hold your camera so that your white or gray card fills up the viewfinder and press your shutter button. After a couple of seconds, you will see the text “Good” blinking in the display. The color balance is now saved on the preset number you selected (d-1 to d-6).

If the light is too dark or too bright, the camera can sometimes fail to measure the white balance. The message will then be “no Gd”. Try adjusting the light and measure again until you get the “Good” message.

Setting a custom white balance using Live view

Using Live view, you can spot meter the white balance, which can be very handy in some situations, for example when your camera is on a tripod and it’s not convenient to move it so that you can fill the viewfinder with the gray card.

Put your card in the scene and turn on Live view. Now press the WB button and use the primary and secondary command dials to select PRE and a preset slot number just as described above. Release the WB button and press and hold it again. The yellow area with the text “PRE” will start blinking on the screen. You will also see a yellow square on the screen. Now turn the camera or use your multi selector on the back of your camera to point the square at your white or gray card. Once it is in the right place, measure the light temperature by pressing the OK button or the shutter button. You will see the message “Data aquired” on the screen. After a few seconds, the white balance will be set and stored in the slot number you chose.

Setting a custom white balance using an existing photograph

What you’re doing here is copying the white balance from an earlier photograph. You’re not actually using it to measure the white balance.

Press the MENU button on the back of the camera. Navigate to Shooting menu and select White balance. Now select Preset manual and press right on the multi selector. You will now see your six white balance preset slots. Select one of them that you wish to use for your new preset.

Now press the ISO button (this is not completely logical in my humble opinion). You will see a new menu. Go to Select image and press right on the multi selector. Now you will see all images on your cards. Navigate to the one from which you wish to copy the white balance and press OK. Its white balance settings will now be copied to the preset slot number you selected.

One way to use this method, would be to shoot your subject with white balance bracketing and then selecting the photo with the best color temperature and copying the white balance settings from it.

Setting the color balance manually

Most cameras let you dial in a specific Kelvin value. Many cameras also have a feature that lets you fine tune the color balance by moving a selector across a palette of different color temperatures. In my opinion, this can be pretty difficult on the small display on he back of your camera. I don’t use it. If you do, please leave a comment and tell me how you use it and what made you choose that method.

Why do i need to get it right when i can fix it in post production?

You may wonder why you need to go through this process. If you’re shooting raw files, it’s very easy to adjust in post processing. But if you’re shooting jpegs, i definitely think it’s worth the effort to get the white balance right in camera. Your images will look so much better. Even with raw, making large color temperature adjustments could potentially degrade the quality of your photos.

One other important point is color consistency. If you’re using auto white balance, it will make an individual assessment on each photo and your colors may have variations based on what’s in the photo.

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